Download bots were the “well-known secret” of the app ecosystem

By Kim-Mai Cutler Comment

It’s remarkable how widely-known the phenomenon of fraudulent download bots was throughout the iOS developer community. Essentially, bots or automated programs have been used for well over a year to download apps until they reach the top of the charts where they can be seen by real users.

Most every large player knew about them, but I could never definitively prove their existence because most developers clammed up or said they would never touch the stuff. In the interest of self-preservation, many suspected bot marketing companies also never responded to any of my inquiries over the last several months.

But after the story broke on a Touch Arcade forum earlier this month, I brought up the issue at our Inside Social Apps conference last week. Many of the biggest developers and marketing companies had been well-aware of the issue for months — if not years. I hadn’t had the time to go through and compile my notes until now, but here are some choice excerpts about the bots issue from last week.

It’s absurd to think about how long Apple must have known about and tolerated this practice.

Several panelists had said they had tested out marketing services that may have used bots. They were suspicious because these services provided downloads without any corresponding bump in active usage.

Fiksu, a company that helps developers acquire users in the most efficient way possible, had tested out one of these marketing services early last year.

“We were approached by these services many months ago,” said Micah Adler, the company’s chief executive. “It was presented as an ad network, but it became obvious to us that users weren’t even launching the app. So we stopped using it after that.”

He added, “It’s been this well-known secret in the ecosystem.”

A few of the best-known mobile game developers acknowledged that their high chart rankings may have partially relied on downloads by bots. Andreessen Horowitz-backed TinyCo said it has since turned off all unorthodox marketing channels and is re-evaluating how they promote their apps. In the original Touch Arcade forum post that broke the story, TinyCo was named as a potential user of a fraudulent marketing service that approached a developer along with Crowdstar, Booyah, Funzio and Mindjolt.

“We use something like 40 or 50 sources to acquire users,” said TinyCo’s chief executive Suleman Ali. “We spend millions every month acquiring users. We’ve reached out to all of them and stopped doing user acquisition with any company where we didn’t know what the source of traffic was. We are now focusing on networks like iAd, AdMob and Chartboost where there’s real visibility.”

Storm8, a bootstrapped game developer founded by Facebook alums, said that it was possible that some of the company’s downloads may have come from bots, but the company wouldn’t know with certainty.

“We talked to many, many companies, but we don’t know for sure if we did use [services that use bots],” said Storm8’s chief executive Perry Tam. He added, “As a developer, I’m glad Apple issued a warning. It shows that they’re dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the App Store. The ultimate goal is to get the best content to users.”

Update: Storm8 sent us an additional comment tonight. “Storm8 has no need to use bots and strongly rejects the practice. The vast majority of its installs come from its own network of 5 million daily active users. With this strong network, Storm8 can cross promote a game to drive more than 100,000 downloads a day.”

Apps from both companies dipped on the free charts at the beginning of this month when Apple issued a warning to developers about using services that manipulate chart rankings. But they’ve since climbed back up.

In general, it’s hard for external watchdogs like the press or developers with clean records to police the charts. It usually costs between $5,000 and $15,000 to use these services, which is expensive for a media company to pay for. Plus, there are at least a half-dozen names of companies that I’ve heard of that do this. When one is caught, they re-emerge under a different name not long after.

If Apple tracks active usage data on all of the apps on iOS, it should be able to backtrack which ones are getting boosts in downloads without any commensurate increase in usage. It should probably also tweak the rankings algorithm so it doesn’t rely so heavily on raw download volume. Apple continually experiments with the rankings system, and temporarily made a dramatic change last spring. But it quickly reverted back to a more download-dependent model.

In comparison, Google Android Market’s charts are more immune to bots because the company’s ranking algorithm is more holistic and incorporates factors like whether users keep their apps installed. While there is criticism that this approach leads to less dynamic charts, there are ways to compensate. Apple can always open up more marketing space for newer or recently updated apps that are seeing higher engagement or stickiness.

“The entire industry needs to get away from this velocity discussion,” said Mihir Shah, the chief executive of Tapjoy, which ironically faced Apple’s wrath last year when its offer walls were banned for having undue influence on the charts. “Offshore bots where a computer is gaming downloads to make users think an app is good is fundamentally damaging to all of us.”